Making the case for medical marijuana
All Loretta Nall and the Alabamians for Compassionate Care want to do is persuade our monumentally intractable legislature, on the cusp of an election year, to disregard 70 years of social taboos and a federal pharmaceutical jihad to ordain that the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes shall be legal throughout the state.
Of course they’re crazy. But folks like Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr. used to be called that, too.
For many, the phrase “medical marijuana” conjures up visions of tie-dyed zonkers malingering their way through bales of government ganja. (In terms of image, Nall says, “Cheech and Chong have not necessarily been our friends.”)
The people at Prince Hall Saturday afternoon looked neither hippie nor dippy. For them, medical marijuana is a crucial factor in improving the quality of life for chronically ill people, and they couldn’t be more serious about changing the law.
Our modern hysteria over the use of marijuana would have bemused our ancestors. The Chinese employed it 4,000 years ago as an anesthetic, in ancient India, doctors prescribed it to mothers in labor and the Egyptians of long-ago dynasties even used it in suppositories for hemorrhoids. Here in America, many of the Founding Fathers grew hemp on their plantations, and marijuana was widely used as a pain reliever in an age before the invention of aspirin.
Widely used in Dixieland, too. I remember perusing my father’s dusty old volumes from the Medical Association of the State of Alabama and marveling that, as late as 1900, “botanical” doctors, “vitapathists” and homeopathics shared the same professional listings as degree-holding practitioners. Marijuana was only one of the natural remedies that infused the homemade tonics and elixirs of Alabama physicians.
The tale of how marijuana became proscribed instead of prescribed is too lengthy and weird to delve into here, but suffice to say the federal government’s prohibition of pot has been every bit as effective as its prohibition of booze.
Despite a long and unimaginably expensive “war on drugs,” millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens continue to enjoy marijuana recreationally. In 2007, more than 775,000 of them were arrested just for possessing the drug, according to the FBI.
While researching ways to test for marijuana intoxication in the Seventies, clinicians discovered reefer’s salutary effects on intraocular pressure, which indicated that marijuana might prevent blindness in glaucoma patients. Soon after, experimental data revealed that the active ingredient in marijuana, THC, could stimulate appetite for AIDS victims and chemotherapy patients. Subsequent tests have shown that medical marijuana can help over 250 conditions, including asthma, arthritis, epilepsy and MS.
The ACC’s mission is to pass the Michael Phillips Compassionate Care Act, named after the late Millbrook resident. Phillips was born with a brain tumor and damaged by futile surgeries to control his seizures. Unlike the many legal drugs prescribed for him, medical marijuana lessened the severity and frequency of his attacks. A bold advocate for cannabis during his short 38 years, he fearlessly testified to the drug’s efficacy in a number of public venues. Noting that more than a dozen states have already okayed the medical use of marijuana, Phillips memorably observed, “How come here I’m a criminal, but in California I can be a patient?”
State Representative Patricia Todd is sponsoring this bill for strong personal reasons. “I feel very passionately about this,” she told the Weekly recently. “I watched my mother die painfully, and I would have done anything to ease that pain.”
Todd admits she’s received flak from loyal supporters who’d prefer she steer away from this controversy, but she believes a majority of Alabamians empathize with her experience. As she puts it, “I believe in the wisdom of the people.”
Is the Compassionate Care Act a gateway legislation to decriminalizing the chronic? Nall says no: “We’re not interested in legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes. This is a medical matter.” Is there any way on earth that the ACC could get this bill through a legislature genetically predisposed to gridlock? Nall is optimistic. Working with Ken Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance, she has surveyed House members and found more support than resistance. “I think there’s a 50-50 chance we could get it through the House this session,“ she said.
The ACC is taking no chances. Already trained to lobby lawmakers effectively, they plan a day of action in Montgomery March 3. (Although federal law is still immutable when it comes to prosecuting users, the Supreme Court last year let stand a California court ruling that state medical marijuana laws trump federal statutes.)
In the end, the compelling reason to pass the Phillips Act is compassion. Meeting a fellow named Tim at Prince Hall would have convinced you of that. A cerebral palsy sufferer, he has tried all manner of muscle relaxants to control the spasms that knot up his musculature, but discovered that marijuana has the best effect on his symptoms with the fewest side effects. He can’t afford to use the synthetic legal THC drug called Marinol, which is not covered by Medicare, so he has risked arrest and imprisonment for 20 years to obtain a remedy he uses only behind closed doors in his bedroom.
Tim is candid about championing medical marijuana — It’s all about the quality of life for me — but he quickly asserts that it’s not for everybody. The reason he supports the Compassionate Care Act is deeply personal. “I don’t feel it’s a question of if it’s going to pass. The question is, when,” he said. “So I feel like I’m fighting against the clock. With the stress of the cerebral palsy, you just never know when your time is coming. Plus, I want the advantages of being able to play with my kids and not having to lie to them about what I’m doing because it’s illegal.”
Birmingham Weekly columnist Courtney Haden will be at the Brookwood Village location of Books-A-Million at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 10, along with columnist Kyle Whitmire and editor Glenny Brock. The trio will give a talk titled “Where There’s a Quill, There’s a Way: Writing on a Weekly Deadline.”
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